I’m saddened to hear that David Koch – industrialist, philanthropist, and hugely influential political activists – has passed away.
Given how hated David and his brother Charles were among certain political circles I suspect there will be a lot of dancing-on-his-grave going on today. Which is unfortunate.
Whatever you might think of the political inclinations of the “Koch Brothers,” they were a rarity in American politics. They were/are sincere, and loyal to principle.
And effective which, yes, is actually quite rare.
Every election cycle huge fortunes are spent on futile political activism that amounts to sending out some press releases, trotting out some old political war horse in cable news interviews as a spokesperson, and running 30 second ads in the months before election day. This sort of “activism” does little to persuade the electorate, but a great deal to enrich political consultants and marketing agencies.
The Kochs did some of that, but they also their real success was in a different area. They sought to advance their causes in state legislatures. They supported local ballot initiatives. They backed candidates in local elections far less sexy then the one which chooses who sits in the White House.
It has paid off big.
Those who dislike the politics of the Kochs tend to do a lot of heavy breathing about the political network they created and supported – you’ll hear these people using terms like “Kochtopus” – but their scorn for the Kochs is in direct proportion to how effective their activism was.
It’s jealousy, frankly.
Believe it or not, you need more than money to be effective in politics. If that’s all it took people like George Soros and Tom Steyer would be far more influential than they are. The Kochs spent money, sure, but their real power came from organizing people.
I actually met David Koch once, if you can call sharing a short elevator ride a “meeting.” It was at an Americans for Prosperity event in Washington D.C. I’m forgetting the year, but I want to say it was 2006. The event was at the Mayflower Hotel, and I was going up to my room. Also in the elevator was Duane Sand, a frequent candidate for federal office here in North Dakota who at the time was the executive director for the state chapter of AFP, and he invited David to come visit us in the Peace Garden State.
David was gracious, but as far as I know nothing ever came of the impromptu elevator pitch.
The Kochs have been important to my career. My critics are probably imagining some form of ideological indoctrination, but when it comes to that I mostly aligned with the Kochs organically. What I learned at the conferences they hosted for political activists and bloggers (back when blogging was the hot new thing) wasn’t really all that ideological.
We weren’t given talking points, or told which candidates to support. They brought in experts to teach us how to market our content. How to use new technological tools like social media (which, again, was still pretty new at the time) to produce content more easily and push it to wider audiences.
In my experience what the Koch groups did was find people like me and help us do what we were already trying to do in our communities.
For a time, before I began working for Forum Communications, I worked for a group that was supposedly funded by Koch contributions. The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity employed people like me to produce news stories and commentary from a small government, free market perspective. I wrote articles for them while simultaneously maintaining this blog.
I have no idea if the group really got money from the Kochs. The group’s contributions were private. I think they probably were.
My experience with Franklin was positive. In the years I worked there I was never once told what to write. The closest we ever came to that was in keeping with the Kochs strict adherence to principle. They didn’t want content on socially conservative issues like abortion, and they didn’t like purely political stories. They wanted the focus to be on issues like taxes and regulation.
The conspiracy mongers would have us believe that the Kochs created a vast empire of people like me through which they could spew their messaging. The truth is something far more benign. They helped generations of conservative/libertarian activists be more effective. That will be their legacy, and it’s a pretty good one.
David Koch was a giant. Someone worthy of respect. His influence will be missed.